A commenter got me thinking some time ago by talking about "standard emotional content" and saying that "too much of the wrong emotions" can be bad for a story. She concluded, "The emotion has to be appropriate for what's happening in the scene and how the character is to be portrayed."
As a character-based writer, I have a hard time
relating to the phrase "standard emotional content." However, it's easy
enough for me to guess that it means people in a story feel what they
are supposed to feel when they are supposed to feel it. They're being
chased, I guess, so they feel panic, or they're doing X Y or Z so they
need to feel this that or the other.
I certainly do suppose that
if one sidetracks off the action into a navel-gazing emotional reverie
that it would appear inappropriate. Needless to say, this is not what I do in my action sequences.
But what I'd rather think about today is what "the wrong emotion" might mean.
suppose I could begin with the idea of not being in touch with one's
characters. I think it's always valuable to be in touch with a
character's mental states, and in fact this is the major reason why I
write chronologically - because emotions and mental states tend to grow
out of one another, and to concatenate.
When you're working in
another world, particularly one with a different kind of social
contract, I think it's worth spending extra time. Because in the
worldbuilding context it's actually quite easy to end up with the
"wrong" emotion, accidentally. I'm going to divide this into two
different types of emotional errors: 1. errors of emotional type and 2.
errors of degree.
Errors of emotional type
occur when you're writing along and you have a social situation, and
your character ends up feeling how an Earth resident would feel in that
situation rather than how a native of your world would feel in that
Think about how you feel in different social
situations. The content of those social situations has a lot to say
about what is an appropriate way to feel. What do you find comfortable
and normal? What do you find embarrassing? Chances are people in your
world won't quite agree, particularly depending on their social status
relative to yours. A poor person won't probably feel comfortable
speaking to a noble person at all, though they might feel perfectly
comfortable addressing a group of peers.
In Varin, members of
different castes have different emotional reactions to different
situations. My noble boy Tagaret would feel slighted if his mother didn't
look at him when she talks to him; my servant-caste boy Aloran feels
very uncomfortable if he is looked at by nobles at all, and prefers to
be out of his Lady's line of sight when she speaks to him. If I were to
associate Californian standards of emotional reaction to eye contact to
him, this would most definitely be a "wrong emotion"!
Varin have such different emotional reactions from our own that I have
to make sure at the start of my story to establish a sort of emotional
compass for readers by putting them into unusual, Varin-based emotional
situations early on and letting them experience how the characters
One example is the scene where Tagaret goes to a concert
with his friends and is looking around at girls - but trying not to look at their faces so that their
bodyguards won't see him as a threat. He's not allowed to talk directly
to a girl, but must speak to her bodyguard - and feels divided about
speaking to the bodyguard, because he's experiencing the excited
emotions he would have when speaking to the girl at the same time that
he's feeling nervous about speaking with a bodyguard who could
potentially beat him up.
Another example when
Aloran thinks about washing his mistress. Because she takes this too personally, she won't let him bathe her, and he feels slighted professionally, but it doesn't come up to the level of personal hurt because it's a part of his job to wash her without feeling any emotional attraction.
Errors of degree
occur when we give a character an emotional reaction that is either too
weak or too strong for the context within the world. These are subtle
and often quite difficult to avoid. I tend to think of them in terms of overreactions and underreactions,
and they pattern pretty predictably with what is normal for our own
experience. An overreaction will occur when we have a character who is
quite accustomed to a particular type of experience react as strongly as
we would in the same circumstances (which for us are not normal). An
underreaction will occur when we have someone fail to find anything odd
about a circumstance which for us is entirely normal, but which for them
is highly unusual and might even be shocking. The best way to combat
them is always to keep our emotional compass for the fictional world on
hand, and think through reactions carefully as we go.
To use the
examples I mentioned above, if I were to have Aloran feel personally hurt
about being forbidden to wash his mistress, then that would be an overreaction. If I were to have Tagaret feel nervous, rather than shocked, about having a girl speak to him directly, that would be an underreaction.
most common errors of degree that I notice in the stories I read are
the kind that are related to questions of social power and privilege -
poor people who hate those above them too much, and don't fear them
enough, or noble people who spend a lot of effort and anger reviling the
people below them when most of the time they wouldn't give them much
thought at all.
When I'm writing along, these kinds of
world-related emotional errors are the kind of thing that can make the
story stop in its tracks. If you are getting an "odd feeling" from a
scene or sequence, or if critique partners are raising their hands, take
a look through for emotional errors. Errors of emotional type are much
easier to find than errors of emotional degree. But being aware of the
possibilities will help you to keep the emotional content of your story
on track, and feeling real.